Sunday, 8 July 2012

On Novelty, Abundance and Destruction

The techno-dammerung theme ("Oh my God!, we've stopped inventing stuff") got another airing in a recent issue of the American magazine The Baffler. What was interesting about David Graeber's Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit was his yoking together of technological disappointment with a critique of the current economic crisis.

Graeber starts with the usual list of stuff that failed to turn up (force fields, teleportation, Mars colonies) before suggesting that cynicism stalks the land. "Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?" This is an intriguing thought, but I think the answer to the question is "no", for two reasons. First, "meditate" (as opposed to pissing about) is hardly the active verb you'd associate with postmodernism. Second, postmodernism was more practice than theory, in the sense that it was largely about stuff that was actually built/made/produced, however ironically it was done. The vast hinterland of the speculative that accompanied modernism (including the golden age of sci-fi) presumed an extensible set of rules that could colonise the future. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the subjective and relative, questioned the existence of such rules. It focused on really existing modernism rather than potential.

Graeber interprets postmodernism as an attempt to simulate novelty as technology failed to deliver flying cars: the optimism of The Jetsons gives way to the cynicism of The Simpsons.  He also believes that the technical advances of the post-WW2 period were increasingly biased towards technologies of simulation, among which he numbers IT and medicine, as opposed to the genuinely labour-saving technologies, such as robotics, that would have led to a post-work society (incidentally, he suggests that 95% of robotics research was devoted to military applications, such as drones). There's an element of techno-snobbery here, treating modern technologies (which are largely incomprehensible to non-experts) as somehow less honest that retro metal-bashing. If robotics isn't simulative, I don't know what is.

It is at this point he introduces the economic dimension, noting that IT and containerisation allowed "industrial jobs to be outsourced to East Asia, Latin America, and other countries where the availability of cheap labor allowed manufacturers to employ much less technologically sophisticated production-line techniques than they would have been obliged to employ at home" (his italics). This is nonsense. Foxconn do not manufacture iPhones using bamboo tweezers and chicken guts. Low-grade technology might have been tolerated at the beginning of offshoring, but the normal pressures of capitalism have meant investment and retooling by firms to stay ahead of the competition. The model is high-tech and low-wage, not low-wage instead of high-tech. The march of offshoring up the value chain from low-tech, labour-intensive jobs to high-tech, creative roles is already well advanced.

Graber makes the mistake of comparing different eras of the past ahistorically. Thus Jules Verne and H.G. Wells could envisage flying machines and trips to the Moon, but our mid-twentieth century dreams of jet-packs and robot butlers have been unfulfilled. The point is that rockets and flight were already proven technologies when Verne and Wells wrote. The Saturn rocket was a huge advance on that of William Congreve (employed in the Napoleonic Wars), but it was a logical extrapolation. Similarly, the Wright brothers powered flight was largely due to breakthroughs in glider control, in effect using technology that had been around for years. Jet-packs were eventually developed in the 1960s but proved impractical. It was easier to walk, or use a ladder. Likewise, robot butlers have got nowhere because there isn't the demand - humans remain cheaper and more effective. The problem isn't the technology, it's the sci-fi.

Marx's theory that capitalism suffers from a falling rate of profit over time (profit comes from the surplus value of labour, automation reduces the labour component of production, hence less profit) gets only a passing reference, despite its prominence in the article title: "if it is true, then the decision by industrialists not to pour research funds into the invention of the robot factories that everyone was anticipating in the sixties, and instead to relocate their factories to labor-intensive, low-tech facilities in China or the Global South makes a great deal of sense". If you accept the broader definition of a robot as an automated agent, rather than the narrower definition of an android, then at all times you are statistically closer to a robot than a rat. As already noted, industrialists have sought both automation and low-wages as a combined strategy to maintain the rate of profit. The move into offshore high-tech work is itself a further defensive strategy to maintain profit margins as Asian workers demand higher wages.

Graeber, who is an academic (and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years), gets impassioned when he turns to another feature of the modern world, the growth in bureaucracy and modern management techniques, which he characterises as a process of marketisation, the constant need to sell yourself and your work: "You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work. That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes". Actually, I think the non-appearance of the these two might have something to do with basic physics, such as the difficulty of disassembling and reassembling matter and the need for a force that does not fit into the standard quantum model. That said, his grumble about MBA bollocks and the internal market paradigm is sound.

His really interesting insight concerns the nature of neoliberalism, which he sees as a bureaucratic, managerialist construct, whose primary goal is to squelch dissent. He also sees it as consequently inimical to technological progress, largely because such progress might lead to demands for a post-work society, or at least a reduction in the working week and a fairer division of the spoils, which would challenge the interests that neoliberalism protects. The central tenet of neoliberal faith is that no other economic system is possible, and for that reason "it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but any radically different technological future. Yet there’s a contradiction. Defenders of capitalism cannot mean to convince us that technological change has ended—since that would mean capitalism is not progressive. No, they mean to convince us that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but that those wonders take the form of modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (“I hear they are going to have flying cars pretty soon”), complex ways of juggling information and imagery, and still more complex platforms for filling out of forms".

I remain unconvinced that neoliberalism must suppress technological advance, though I agree a central feature of its ideology is the belief that "there is no alternative", and that this in turn may bias motivations and expectations in respect of research, such as the insistence that publicly-funded R&D must "pay its way". But this assumes that the hegemony is effective at directing invention, whereas all the evidence points to innovation being unpredictable and essentially accidental. Providing a fertile environment is obviously necessary, but beyond that we have to accept that creativity usually happens in the cracks, even when stimulated by carefully planned programmes and cooperative teams.

One of the myths of the modern age is the belief that major technical breakthroughs have been suppressed to protect vested interests, from everlasting suit material to free energy.Such crude conspiracy is not credible (in reality, someone would break ranks), but the trope does point to an ideological challenge to neoliberalism that might be referred to as the "coming abundance". You don't need to believe we will achieve a true post-scarcity society to recognise that current trends towards that state will continue for a while yet. Without a corresponding change to the social model, this will exert greater strains on the economy as abundance leads to deflation, which in turn erodes profit, and as the social consequences are persistent unemployment and underemployment. Indeed, there are grounds for believing that we may have reached this stage already and that the current banking crisis is symptomatic of it.

The burden of change will be unevenly distributed: "we can transition to an economy where we work more for ourselves, each other, and in teams. A logical consequence of the financial crisis but also one that could be construed as a silver lining is the rapidly growing rate of self-incorporation". This American sunny optimism ignores the class dimension. Low-wage workers, displaced by offshoring and automation, aren't setting themselves up as limited companies. This is a strategy for the already privileged middle classes (in the British sense of that term), and is usually as much about tax avoidance as it is about flexibility and lifestyle choice.

A common feature of these analyses, from both left and right, is the suspicion that if Marx's theory on declining profits is right, the only solution may well be the destruction of capital value. In other words, lots of bankruptcies and write-offs, or perhaps a major war. This economic tabula rasa would allow capital accumulation to begin again from a lower base, thus allowing for larger profit margins during the period of revived growth. The banking crisis (i.e. the banks' hoarding of capital and reluctance to lend), together with large corporate cash balances and corporate and private deleveraging, may simply represent a collective preparation for that moment of reckoning. The Eurozone crisis is shaping up to be the occasion for that moment across the globe.

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